Podcast: Leveraging Technology to Differentiate Instruction with Becky Walker in ID on Teachers in America

21 Min Read
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Photo: Interventionist Becky Walker

Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

In this episode, we hear from Becky Walker, an interventionist in Blackfoot, Idaho. Recognizing the educators in Blackfoot School District as HMH Into Reading power users, we had visited three schools, where we met Becky prior to recording the podcast. We were so impressed with how Becky and her colleagues strive to meet the needs of every learner that we knew we wanted to learn more about her and her education journey.

First Hear from Becky and Her Colleagues at Blackfoot School District

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students.

I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend to learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom. We focus each conversation on a specific instructional practice or theme but always include their teacher journey.

In March, we had a chance to speak to Becky Walker, an interventionist and educational technology specialist for the Blackfoot School District in Idaho.

Becky has built her 15-year education career around the quote by Lady Bird Johnson, “Children are apt to live up to what you believe of them.” Becky first started as a classroom teacher, where she strived to help students become successful in all areas of their lives.

Now as an interventionist, she runs online educational programs for her district and works alongside teachers to provide differentiated instruction to a diverse community of learners, including multilingual learners and students from Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. HMH had the opportunity to visit the Blackfoot School District in the fall of 2022 and witness the great work Becky and her colleagues are doing with their students.

In this episode, Becky will share best practices and programs that help meet every student where they are and lead them to academic success. Let’s get to the episode!

Noelle Morris: Welcome, Becky. I'm so glad to have you, and thank you for joining and being a part of today's conversation.

Becky Walker: Thank you so much for having me.

Noelle: So, Becky, my first question I'd love to ask, and have you share with our listeners, is to tell us about your district and what's unique about it.

Becky: So, we are the Blackfoot School District. We are in Southeast Idaho. Blackfoot is a small town. We have about 16,000 people here, and our district has about 4,200 students in it. But what makes us unique is that we take in students from the Shoshone-Bannock [Tribes who are located on the Fort Hall] Reservation and the other part is that we're agricultural. So we have a pretty diverse district. A lot of students come from different backgrounds, from different cultures, and we love it. We love to build off of that and make it an exciting place to be.

Noelle: I'd like to take us back and have you share three words that describe your personal teaching journey. Think about three words that from your first year in the classroom to where you are now, words that just stick with you, and what you see as important about teaching.

Becky: I think a lot of change would be the three words.

Noelle: Can you describe some of the changes that you've experienced?

Becky: Yeah. So I think it was definitely a mind shift from thinking that I had to do all of the teaching and the students would just learn to switching over to letting the students do the teaching through conversations, through discussions, letting them actually lead the class in almost everything.

Noelle: I mean, every teacher hopefully gets to that teaching life lesson that you do not have to do it all yourself. So as an interventionist, Becky, what's your day look like? Can you tell us about how you partner with general education teachers?

Becky: We pull students. So I have two para-educators—well, two and a half. One works with me half the day. We go off of our state scoring, and we group students based off of their monthly progress monitoring scores. We just have a Google Sheet™. It doesn't even have to have a fancy name. It's just a Google Sheet. So, the teachers will put in what module they're on, what week they're on, and they will put their “I can” statements, what they want us to focus on most in our lessons that week. And then, we use the HMH intervention that's provided, and I match. So if they're on module eight, week three, then I go to that in the table of contents, and it tells me what sessions to pull, and I pull those sessions. And the nicest thing about those is that they're scripted. So, my paras, I don't have to show them exactly what to do because everything is there for them. And then we print off the lesson sheet, and off they go with their group.

Noelle: That's awesome. So, you're using the Foundational Skills and Word Study Studio as lesson-aligned interventions each week?

Becky: Yeah, we are.

Noelle: That's amazing. What progress are you seeing? Are you seeing students transfer and apply it? And what conversations are you having with your general education teacher?

Becky: Yes, we are seeing it. And the thing that's most exciting, one of the areas that our students are following lowest in at this point in time is spelling. And we were able to make sound spelling cards. So, all of my paras have just a little pocket size of sound spelling cards that they can take with them to their groups; and I have them with my group. And all of our classes, kindergarten through fifth grade, have the sound spelling cards up on their wall. So, as we use these foundational scale lessons, and we focus on key spellings and are practicing them, over the last four months, [for] every single student, we have seen a steady incline on that spelling port sub-test, and it carries a lot of weight. So, we've seen their scores go up. It's been exciting.

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Becky and her team use sound spelling cards with students to build spelling skills.

Noelle: Yes, because I mean, that's a direct correlation to coding and encoding. Just one last little tip. We updated, and there are new spelling anchor charts, the rules, and some of those initial foundational skill anchor charts that are new. But I love that you're thinking of a way to make some of the resources portable and shareable across multiple team members that are supporting your efforts.

Noelle: Now, when you think about being the data person for your district, what would you say is the district's biggest need now, and where you've also seen some of the growth impacted over time?

Becky: Right now, I think our biggest focus is creating classrooms that provide explicit and systematic and structured instruction using the curriculum that we have and turning it into something that will reach every single student. Because...we do have a large Hispanic population; we have a large Native [American] population. So language is something that we really have to focus on with our students, and we can do that through explicit instruction.

Noelle: I was listening to your conversation about differentiation. (See video below.) I'd love for us to take a listen to it and then unpack that. And talk about specifically what you see and how as a district and as an interventionist, you're approaching differentiation to meet the needs of individual students.

Hear Becky talk to us in Blackfoot School District, where she shared how to leverage technology to differentiate instruction.

Becky in the video: I think our students only know technology; that is their life. So as you implement that into your classroom, that just makes them feel more at home. It's easy for them to get in. It allows teachers the opportunity to differentiate. And [for] students, it used to be you would sit at a reading group, and you knew that if you were a Denver Bronco, you were in the low reading group; but if you were a Philadelphia Eagle, then you were in the high reading group. But now, with technology, all of that can be done without students even knowing that it's happening. So, everyone's on a level playing field, and you can still differentiate and get what you need done in your classroom.

Noelle: So, Becky, can we talk about that? Because I think that's one of the just truest of all reasons in that technology is to get to that personalized level without over-identifying needs that you're going to continue to put students in that failure cycle and at risk because they're avoiding embarrassment. So, I'd love to unpack that and how you're using technology to provide that equity but meet students where they are.

Becky: So, because of digital access to all of their curriculum, it makes it super easy because I can have access to kindergarten curriculum all the way up to sixth-grade curriculum. So when my students are reading on a second-grade level, instead of giving them a fourth-grade passage that is a frustration level, I can give them a story from the second-grade curriculum that they can read, and they can read well, and they can understand. And the student next to them might be one of my advanced students. So I can reach up, and I can assign them a story from the sixth-grade curriculum. So, it's meeting their need and giving them a more in-depth story with harder words and harder vocabulary that they have to work with.

So I use it by pulling from all of the different grade levels inside the digital access. And then, it's just a click of a button; it's a hit, "assign." I have my students grouped inside my classroom because I can create groups to put them where their academic level is and name the group, and then I can shoot it out to six students with just one click of the button.

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Becky manages her intervention groups on the Ed platform, where she can easily assign activities appropriate for each reading group.

Noelle: How have you all planned for that access for students? Are you one-to-one? Does every teacher have that ability? Is it in each room, or does the device follow the student across the different experiences in their day?

Becky: Yeah. So we're super lucky. Our third grade through 12th grade are one-to-one iPads, and then our kindergarten through second grade are two-to-one. So, they share with another teacher, and they can schedule within their day. They get that iPad cart for half the day for kindergarten through second grade.

Noelle: Wow. And everybody is all totally scheduled, and it's all easy?

Becky: Yeah, it is.

Noelle: Well, can you share any secret tips on how you all made that happen?

Becky: Well, having so many makes it easier, but our teachers just adjust their core curriculum instruction around the time that they're going to have their iPads. But really, I mean, kindergarten and first grade don't use them as much as our third through fifth grade in our Into Reading. So, it's kindergarten, first grade, and second grade that have to share anyway, and everybody else has their own all day long.

Noelle: Is there a component within phonics that y'all are using consistently K–5? Is everybody using interactive phonics?

Becky: At my school, the kindergarten through second grade do. They are very good at using those components. We're working a little bit more with our third through fifth grade in seeing the need for them to use those components. One of the things that I fell in love with most in Into Reading was the foundational skills in the upper grades because I feel like other programs are missing those. And the fact that I was still using syllabication with my fourth graders all the way down to short vowel/long vowel sounds, open/closed syllables, all of those things that they need to become good spellers is inside this program and ready for you to use. You're not having to look for other resources.

Noelle: What's your favorite part of your day? What do you look forward to the most?

Becky: Working with the kids. I love data. I'm a little crazy about it. I love pulling spreadsheets. I love putting things together, but really it comes down to the kids and being able to see them succeed, and you work with the same ones, and you're in such a small group. So, I've worked with the same first graders. There are five of them that I work with every single day. And we went from knowing no letter sounds to now we're blending CVCs, and we're building where they can actually read stories. And I think it's definitely spending time with kids.

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Becky and her team provide pull-out intervention to students and work on skills from blending CVC words to reading comprehension.

Noelle: In the last two weeks, Becky, one of your favorite moments you've had with a student, something that they've said to you that made you laugh out loud?

Becky: The one that made me laugh out loud is as we were walking, the kids were just guessing what swear words were and which ones their parents used and which ones they didn't use. But that had nothing to do with learning. But it was my favorite part of the day.

Noelle: I would've loved to have heard that.

Becky: I know; their parents probably died.

Noelle: I'm sure, but I've been like, "What word would my daughter..." I know exactly what word my daughter would've put up on the chart.

Becky: But there is a little boy in here, and he's new to us this year. He's one of my first graders. And just to see the change in him from just two months ago when we were working on things, and he would say to me, "Well, I can't read. I can't read," to now as we're going through the blending routines and different things, and his eyes light up as he's like, "Did I say it right? Did I read it right? Did I do it right?" And even though his percentile right now is still showing that we're still below the 20th percentile, it's okay because I know the growth that we've made this year in first grade, and as we carry that growth into next year and second grade and that we have time to get him there. And now that he has the confidence, I think we can get him there quicker.

Noelle: The amount of skills that have to be learned to even hit that 20th percentile is just enormous. We definitely need to stop and appreciate and give some love around that and focus on that growth. Yes, the rest is going to come, and we need to figure out how to accelerate it, but I love that you see those moments of shifting from "I can't" to "Well, now I'm doing it. Tell me if I'm doing it right." Where are you sitting right now within the top conversation that's happening right now on teacher burnout? Are you seeing it? Is it something that's not impacting your district? And I'd just be curious if you're willing to share. Have you ever had a moment where you're just like, "Should I do something else?"

Becky: Yeah. I think teacher burnout is huge. I was just talking with her friend last night about this, and I had to remind her as we were sitting there talking that you have to remember it's the beginning of March. We're still in 20-degree temperature. The kids haven't been outside running and playing. There's so much that builds into it as we hit spring, and you have to remember that next fall, you'll fill that fire inside of you again, and you'll want to be back here again. But we definitely have been impacted trying to find teachers, especially special education teachers. I think that the burnout rate for them is so much higher. The pressure of paperwork and the pressure of student success and student gains and everything that they have, it's hard, and it's hard to find qualified teachers to fill the positions of those who are leaving.

Noelle: I applaud everything that goes on, and I appreciate sharing, and it is so important. So what is something that your district or within your school building you feel is being done to ensure that the teachers feel valued and seen and know that the work that they're doing matters?

Becky: The principal that I work for is really good about celebrating the successes and helping us as a team focus on those. And that comes from the top. Our superintendent is so good at sending emails out, thanking teachers for what they're doing, reminding them that there are great things happening in the Blackfoot School district, sending out specific data details or things that he's seeing, and then the principal follows it up on a smaller scale. And then that helps us in PLCs to do it on an even smaller scale of really celebrating the successes that we have with individual students. And that's the reason why we're here.

Noelle: Hey, teacher friends, if you're an HMH user, did you know you have access to Teacher's Corner on Ed? Included with every HMH program, Teacher's Corner is a community of teachers, learning experts, and instructional coaches gathered in one place to support you with a new kind of professional learning: Bite-sized, teacher-selected, and teacher-driven. With on-demand sessions, lesson demonstrations, program support, and practical resources, Teacher's Corner lets you choose how you interact with our content. I like to think about it as inspiration on demand.

Noelle: I had heard my team and other people had shared, "Noelle, you should hear what they're saying in Blackfoot about Teacher's Corner and the community." How have you been using Teacher's Corner on Ed? And you decide where we've extended that community outside the platform into a Facebook® group. What's the importance of having just-in-time, bite-sized resources for your own professional learning? And then where do you see the value of that collective efficacy happening within a community of teachers who don't know each other, but they're all here for a common purpose?

Becky: So, Teacher’s Corner, I love. I love the little videos. I love that I don't have to wait for someone to get back to me to answer questions about something that I have. I was looking for different ideas for my small-group instruction, and I could pop into Teacher’s Corner and find four different videos of things that they do for differentiated instruction and for small-group instruction. That's what I love about Teacher’s Corner—the instant answer to anything that I might have.

As far as the Facebook page, it's so good to know that you're not alone. That someone in Florida is experiencing the same thing that you're experiencing, but that someone from New York might have the answer to what we're both doing and that we can work together across the country because everybody has their own problems, but everyone has their own successes and might have tried something that worked for them that I haven't thought of yet that I can pull in. And I love the search engine that I can do it in Facebook, and I can type just something very specific in, and all of the conversations pop up for me to read through.

Noelle: Thank you. And thank you for that advice. You do seem very self-sufficient. Would you say that you were that independent and self-sufficient in your first three years of teaching, or did that come after a milestone of you realizing, "I've got this, and I can be empowered to find and answer my own questions?"

Becky: It definitely came later. I was blessed to work with the best teaching partner ever. I student-taught with her and then spent three years teaching with her. And that partnership is what really helped me to grow into the educator that I am now and really learn how to use technology. And now I show her technology. She taught me the education side, and now I'm helping her with the technology side of things.

Noelle: So once partners, always partners. I love that.

Becky: Always.

Noelle: So, I have a few more questions. One, what is your hope for the teaching profession five years from now?

Becky: I hope that it will become valued again. I feel like during the pandemic, teachers were really applauded for what they do as parents; they were having kids at home and having to do it. And I feel like we lost that very quickly, just the trust between parents and teachers. And I think that if we can become partners again, a lot more can happen.

Noelle: What is your advice for that teacher who is in year one to three, which means they came in during the pandemic, and the residual issues that were found during the pandemic are there?

Becky: To trust the system. Trust what you've been taught, and it'll all be okay. And you have to be tough. I think as teachers, we have to have thick skin and be able to make it through the day to make it through the school year and really work together as colleagues.

Noelle: We can pull your advice from earlier in the story about what made you laugh out loud, but you can tell that you have also embraced laughing out loud. And not everything has to be immediately corrected if they're just being curious and finding each other. Now, if they start making bar models and charts of profanity—probably don't want that. But when you listen in, and then you can laugh out loud, you can use that in so many ways for those relationships and connections to the content.

Becky, I ask everybody, and I just have really been loving this conversation, and our listeners have as well because you're temperament and your voice are so calming. I'm going to be curious if your walk-up song takes us in a completely opposite of your calm nature, but I ask every teacher to share, what's your walk-up song? You're walking into class [for the] first time, or you just came up with the best amazing lesson. You can't wait to teach it. You walk in, and everybody needs to have that song that pumps them up. What's your walk-up song?

Becky: Don't make fun of me, but my favorite song ever is Bonnie Tyler's "Turn around / Every now and then."

Noelle: The song that we all sing, "Every now and then." Yes. It's the song that you belt out when you hear it on the radio. And you don't care if you're putting on the concert and you're at a red light.

Becky: “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” My 12-year-old daughter told me that she doesn't like this because it's just too much. I'm like, "That's why it's my song."

Noelle: So now, toward the end of the conversation, we're hearing that you're extra and you're too much.

Becky: Yes, I'm too much.

Noelle: But I do love mom to mom that you get that as well. You got a special place for them. And Becky, you are special for your students, and I am so glad that I had an opportunity to have this conversation. And now I know why Christine and Tim came back filled with such joy after talking with you and other teachers in Blackfoot School District.

Becky: You guys are too kind. Thank you so much for letting me come on.

Noelle: Thanks for joining us on the podcast today.

If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of  Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoyed today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes.

The Teachers in America podcast is a production of HMH. Executive producers are Christine Condon and Tim Lee. Editorial direction is by Christine Condon. It is creatively directed and audio engineered by Tim Lee. Our producer and editor is Jennifer Corujo. Production designers are Mio Frye and Thomas Velazquez. Shaped blog post editors for the podcast are Christine Condon, Jennifer Corujo, and Alicia Ivory.

Thanks again for listening!


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